Disaster tourism is the practice of traveling to areas that have recently experienced natural or man-made disasters. Individuals who participate in this type of travel are typically curious to see the results of the disaster and often travel as part of an organized group. Many people have criticized disaster tourism as exploitation of human misery and a practice that demeans and humiliates local residents. Others argue that tourism to devastated areas can offer a boost to the local economy and raise awareness of the incident, both of which are often needed after a tragedy. It should be noted that disaster tourism is separate and distinct from the efforts of humanitarian groups who may bring in work crews from outside the area to assist in cleanup, rebuilding, and provision of necessary services to local residents.
When a geographical region suffers a major incident, the media may spend a great deal of time reporting on the situation and the plight of local residents. In some cases, this reporting can inspire curiosity in individuals who may have difficulty comprehending the magnitude of the situation. As a result, some people will actually visit the affected areas so they can experience the situation firsthand. These individuals are typically motivated by curiosity and do not necessarily plan to participate in relief efforts to assist the rebuilding of the communities they will visit. In some cases, those who participate in disaster tourism will simply travel to an area on their own, while others will purchase a package tour from a travel business.
Some individuals who have reported on disaster tourism note that some local residents, government officials, and community advocates find the practice disturbing. Disaster tourism detractors believe that the practice is insensitive, as it turns private citizens and their misery into a tourist attraction. The citizens are not compensated directly for their participation in the "attraction" and typically don't give their permission to be photographed or observed by tourists. In addition, detractors also argue that the presence of tourists, particularly when ferried about in large motor coaches or traveling in large groups, can interfere with legitimate relief efforts. Supporters of disaster tourism argue that tourism brings in needed cash to an area, which is important to stabilizing the economy and creating new jobs. Without the income from tourism, supporters argue, disaster-afflicted areas will have difficulty restoring their communities.
As an alternative to disaster tourism, many charitable groups do offer individuals the opportunity to travel to disaster-affected areas as part of a work group. These groups work with local organizations to rebuild communities and provide charitable and even relocation services to residents who have lost their homes, jobs, and families. While there may be some opportunity for tourism during these trips, the emphasis of the journey is on assisting communities rather than recreational travel.